How to recognize a truly “digital” company

All discussions around “digital” and the trending role of a CDO don´t really elaborate on one point: what does it take to become digital? As posted earlier, a lot of emphasis seems to be put on Marketing. Plus, one must not forget that digital isn’t about simply being online, this is history. Companies need to use technology to solve customer problems better than others. I would like to focus on a couple of aspects in this post.

  1. SOCIAL: it is all about social. Social in the sense that it is all about human interactions making your digital products more relevant & efficient. This means dynamic (and not static) products. And, please, LISTEN to your users on social media. Listen to what they say, what they really care about, what they promote, what they ignore. Make sure, your mission has a credible purpose (yes, this is getting into the area of branding).
  2. (BIG) DATA: it is all about being able to compute large amount of data and to use it for more relevant & efficient experiences. Also this results in dynamic (and not static) products.
  3. OPEN: consider your destination website to go away latest in a couple of years. Users simply won’t go back to www.yourproduct.com. Think carefully about what really is your core asset and don’t try to market your destination site. Let users interact with your content, build dynamic and information that can be truly shared. But also let application developers build products based on your data. Build a “virtual product team”.
  4. MULTIPLE SCREENS: this is not about building your destination site for PC, laptop, tablet & smartphone. It is much more about 1.-3. Build experiences that are fluid and adapt. Product solutions are only up to date if they address a particular user problem. And, guess what: users are more and more getting the power of technology. They expect more and more and their behavior is changing rapidly.
  5. USER CENTRICITY: with all the potential of technology and design as described above you will go no where if don’t seriously change the way how you build your products. Focus on the problems of your customers that are worth to be solved. And then iteratively find a viable & scalable solution. Don´t fall into the “business trap” aka you believe you do understand the market by counting competitor´s features and calculation market shares. Take the extra product development mile. Either you do it now or later. But you will have to do it or you will die.  And: this is NOT a marketing task.

And please don’t make the mistake to believe that Facebook & Co. will go away. Yes, their usage is kind of declining in some markets. I remember a discussion with someone pretty senior in my previous company who literally said: “Jörg, don´t worry too much about social. Facebook is just a fashion. It will go away.” Even if Facebook went away, the points above won´t. Is your company really up to the digital challenge? As a CEO you have to care…

When ignoring design thinking destroys company value

When employees don’t want to see the limitations of their mindset, it becomes dangerous for their companies. Even more if they are in executive or leadership positions. Not only the diversity of thinking is at risk, but also critical competencies can be missing. But what to do if there is a completely blind spot? If the responsible managers simply are not aware of their open flanks? This can happen even to the brightest people. With great experience and superior thinking. Suddenly they might intuitively feel challenged on a very fundamental basis. A challenge that questions everything they do and have done so far. And believe me, consequences arising from this type of challenge on a very personal level can be really irrational. I have experienced such situations at least twice in my career.

And then comes the moment of truth: how do they react? Do they let this threatening thing happen (for the best of their business) or do they fight it back (for the best of their self affirmation)? Times have changed: technology enables customers to do things that have never been conceivable before. It is time to change perspective and really build great products for them. Which companies will see and use those opportunities? Not those with employees and executives who won´t let go.

Designful companies will outperform the others. It is just a question of time…

Stories from the search for fresh digital blood | Russell Reynolds Associates

Stories from the search for fresh digital blood | Russell Reynolds Associates.

Very interesting article about the role of digital leadership in established boards and companies. As a headhunter has put it when I met him on Wednesday: “you are surfing on the right wave, your moment will come for sure”. But one thing cannot be learned with a MBA program: leadership. You need to get experienced with real transformation situations in larger corporations (e.g. in the media and/or telecommunications area). But the more experienced you get in those areas the less entrepreneurial you might become. This explains why those candidate profiles are pretty rare out there…

Leading by Vision – “Man kann auch in Schönheit sterben.”

In interviews, one is often asked: “How do you lead people?”. Leading your own team might be relatively easy if you are their disciplinary manager (but also this is changing increasingly…).

What do you do if you “have to make people listen to you who don’t have to?” (as one NOKIA HR Manager has always put it). I strongly believe that this is the moment to become serious about the “content” and less about the “process”. You cannot solely lead by KPIs or by driving process milestones. You need to answer the “why.” Now imagine a situation where you have to lead really strong people like founders, product owners or senior engineers. What makes people listen to your ideas and follow you?

During the first ten years of my career, I believed it was all about money and job titles. You could buy the loyalty of your employees without having to satisfy their demand for great stuff to work on. You could get any UX person if you just offer a nice title and a decent salary. This was the type of arrogance of people wearing suits and owning the P&L. I was so wrong. I found myself in situations where I had to sell the role to an interesting candidate – and had nothing meaningful to say beyond “our organization is big” or “your salary is attractive.”

When talking about “leading by vision” I don´t mean the fluffy high flying vague kind of thing. I mean a concrete and tangible artifact. At one of my previous companies, we identified so-called “north stars” aka products that would guide us the way. We built a vision type to illustrate the concept as concretely as possible. It is hard and sometimes almost impossible. But you have to try. If you get this right, no, let´s say exciting for your (potential) followers then they will listen and come. The rest is empowerment and excellent management. Don´t let go. Also, monitor progress and ruthlessly push for the execution of the vision. In German, there is a saying: “Man kann auch in Schönheit sterben.”

No need to be afraid of R&D

When I was put in front of engineers for the very first time, I really didn´t know how to deal with them. Quickly I realized that my leadership style didn´t work out anymore. Please don´t get me wrong: I was an experienced manager with almost ten years of leadership experience. Until that point in time I was pretty successful in my roles. My strategy to get myself over this point was to put pressure. “We need to have feature A released by June, otherwise we won´t achieve our business target and our investors won´t like it…” I said. And you know what: my R&D colleagues simply didn´t care. Instead they asked me what to do, how to build it etc. I was not able to answer questions about the product itself and was caught waffling in many cases.

More than that: I always felt uncomfortable to talk about the product to be built. Even tried to avoid talking about it. Incredible, isn’t it? On top of that, I tried to avoid exposure to the teams in charge. Wanted to “manage” it top down.

The result was poor. We launched a product that more or less completely failed. But even worse: I had lost my reputation with my R&D team. They simply didn’t take me seriously anymore. My behavior had increased the gap between “business” and “engineering”.

Now after a couple of years later I understand why. I had to learn it the hard way how to collaborate with my R&D colleagues. But not without having gone to the other extreme: having lost my connection with my stakeholders. Only in the recent years I have been able to balance the needs better. And actually got a lot of satisfaction out of this. Starting with a product vision and then going through technical but also design and customer iterations is something extremely exciting.

The most important thing you need to bear with: accept that you don´t know much. You don’t need to be the one knowing everything and also not the one with the best ideas. In the contrary: the more you step back the more successful you will become. One team gave me a nickname after I had left – “Il Padrino” – the guy behind the scenes but in charge…

Many Business People Eye Away from Uncertainty

Editor’s note: The is an edited version of an older post.

Learning about all the frameworks in an MBA education and dealing with all the business cases leads to a situation where business people might feel overconfident in understanding what is going on in the world. More than that: A lot of managers claim to know better and to have a more strategic view than the product managers.

At the same time, the product manager is forced to justify his/her proposal in a situation where proof of evidence is simply not existing. And not only that: Many assumptions are being made. If you forced design thinkers to prove every single of those assumptions, nothing will ever really happen. It is all about intuition and iteration with real customers. It is about dealing with uncertainty. Really dealing with uncertainty – not just pretending to do so.

“The Designful Company” is a great book. It also describes the situation of the earth not being entirely discovered. Maps would only cover part of the globe, many white areas are still left. There are some people who are attracted by those and who are willing to “fight the dragons“. And others shy away.

Digital has created even more white spaces than ever before. The world is full of new opportunities. So why do many business people don´t conquer them? Well, it is because of the uncertainty they would have to admit to being existent.

If you have an idea about your target market and a top-level understanding of what product you want to build you still have the challenge to build it. Building it from scratch is hard. You can copy cat similar products or you can just tweak your existing UI – both feel more comfortable than jumping into the cold water.

And now imagine the product visionary coming in with her/his ideas. Not using what is out there already but trying to build new solutions to existing problems. And now try to figure out your own emotions in such a situation. You don´t understand the solution, it is different from what you have experienced before. Would you leave your framework castle to deal with it or shoot it down from behind your safe (business) walls? Up to you to decide!

Book cover “The Designful Company”

Thinking business – Why it is difficult for product managers

Editor’s note: This is a refresh of an older post from 2013.

Thinking business is a challenge for product leaders. The illustration below shows us why.

Translation from business to product - graphic

Why do founder CEOs with strong product management skills have difficulties when their companies need to scale? Why are product leaders often perceived as the guys who don’t understand “business”? Why is it often so frustrating to manage stakeholders if you are a product manager?

I have asked myself this type of questions pretty often. Actually, at times I felt so far away from business that I was proud of being an idealistic advocate of our users. I found excitement in challenging the business colleagues by presuming I had the better (because of my arguments being user focused) arguments in discussions. And yes, it is true that there are many articles about this topic. One of my employees pretty often asked me to be less “ideologic.” My strategy papers etc. were often perceived as a kind of “bible”. Personally, I believe this has been and still is a defensive move of the function product.

Let´s try to understand the different historical phases of product management better.

TACTICAL MARKETING – Phase I

“Product” used to simply be one of the four P’s in the marketing mix. Product managers got a list of features they had to build and to release. That was all. Nowadays, the solutions have become more complex than ever. Not only technically. Also, customers are expecting solutions tailored to their needs. 

STRATEGIC MARKETING – Phase II

Marketing became more and more philosophy for companies to be truly consumer-centric. It is the moment where marketing started to ask for seats at the executive table.

R&D COMPLEXITY – Phase III

Latest with the arrival of digital, products became too complex to be built based on a top-down specification. The introduction of agile methodologies changed the way R&D needed to be led.

STRATEGIC PRODUCT MANAGEMENT – Phase IV

With all the agile teams led by product managers, a new level of organizational challenge arrived: How to make sure all teams are working towards the same goal? Thinking business became increasingly important.

Traditional general managers often fail to manage R&D because they are not seasoned product leaders. They need “help” in steering those teams. Please also see the following page if you want to read more: Leading product companies without product background. The only way to inspire those teams is to have a clear product vision instead of asking for simple features to be built. There is a translation needed. Otherwise, there will be no real link between general management and R&D and the company will not be successful.

So, if you experience product leaders who are not embracing your corporate strategy, this might be due to the fact that she/he is not willing and/or able to challenge it. However, it might be a comfort zone related issue as well. On the other side, it is always hard to leave the area of your own functional expertise and to broaden your view. 

A big question remains open: How to broaden your view as a product leader? Personally, I have chosen to do an MBA for this. But if you have colleagues with a solid consulting background and openness towards design thinking this might also be very valuable.

Thinking business – let’s discuss together what might be the best way to achieve better translation in your organization! I am looking forward to your thoughts.

Why good product management helps sustainability

During a lunch with Erik we have had a discussion about sustainability. This inspired me to write this post. Good product management means focusing on serving user needs best with special focus on creating tangible benefits. Starting with a problem that is worthwhile solving from the user´s point of view, the emphasis is to iteratively come up with solutions that get users excited. There is no waffling, but pure product in the hands of potential and hopefully future consumers.

Consequent design thinking ensures that no “waste” is being produced. This also avoids that products are being built which serve only one purpose: maximizing the profit of the building company – not the one of its customers.

Real sustainability emerges if the ingredients viability, desirability and feasibility come together. A good product manager focuses on all three and is therefore compliant with sustainability standards.

So, dear product managers: now you have another very strong argument in discussions about how important design thinking is. Think long term, help to improve sustainability!